By Iain Viraj Cunningham, Graduate Student, Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures
Recently, the Russian Studies Workshop screened the 2016 documentary film Operation Wedding, the story of a group of Jewish civilians attempting to leave their city of Riga to find a more accepting life and religious freedom outside of The Soviet Union. The Jewish civilians attempt to take a small Soviet passenger plane from an airport by buying all of the seats in the cabin, but their plan is apprehended by the Soviet authorities and the KGB. The film, in masterful documentary style, contains archival footage, reenactments, and extensive interviews with the film’s protagonists, Eduard Kuznetsov and Sylva Zalmanson. The film’s director – Anat Zalmonson Kuznetsov, a daughter to two of the conspirators in the plot to leave, shared with us some of her thoughts about the film in a conversation with Professor Ben Nathans, Associate Professor of History at University of Pennsylvania, and was able to answer some of the audience’s questions.
The film itself at once depicts the inspiring story of the filmmaker’s parents’ refusal (the name refusenik was applied to those seeking to leave) to accept unfreedom and the trials endured as a result, but more than that it shows the intimate family life of people once oppressed. Scenes of Anat Kuznetsov and her mother Sylvia Zalmanson visiting the place of her confinement are juxtaposed with archival footage of their trial almost 50 years earlier. The film provides a praxis for apprehension of the past – a close look at memory’s relation to trauma.
There is also an engagement with the social and political difference in narratives surrounding this event. Kuznetsov notes early on how he earned the appellation “terrorist” by the Soviet officials, and depicted are reenactments, both by the Soviet government and by the Western media. The difference between the narratives is stark – the West naming the refuseniks as freedom fighters and the Soviets naming them as terrorists. One of the more shocking moments is the continuation of the Soviet narrative in the current Russian Federation. Here we find one of the lesser-known expressions of the gap in dialogue between Western and Russian media. In this way, Zalmanson Kuznetsov’s film reminds us to reexamine narratives in history, or at least reexamine their portrayals in media.
Finally, the film documents the effects of their attempt: because of international backlash concerning the emigration laws in the Soviet Union, in the next 10 years over 200,000 Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Eduard Kuznetsov admits that even at the time he knew very well that his plan would not succeed but continued with it because of his desire to speak through his action. Such a reminder gives us hope that our small actions as individuals still have the ability to affect the world on a global scale – a much needed reminder in our current world, where it seems less and less possible to make an impact.
By illuminating a personal story, Anat Zalmanson Kuznetsov shows us the power of documentary film to cultivate social change and explore more universal questions. She connects the events of her parent’s lives not only with the social changes in Soviet Russia, but also with the demanding cultural questions of our age. Ultimately, she reminds us of the universality of these narratives, and the necessity for their documentation.
More about the Zalmonson Kuznetsov and the Refusenik project: https://www.refusenikproject.org/